India's Supreme Court has refused to ban syariah courts even as it ruled that such Islamic courts or their orders did not have legal sanction.
The judgment was welcomed by leaders of the 150 million-strong Muslim community who said the Supreme Court had preserved the status quo and ensured that the country's Muslims were free to seek the help of such religious courts to resolve disputes.
A two-judge bench headed by Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad ruled that orders handed down by syariah courts applied only to people who willingly submitted to them, news agencies reported.
The Supreme Court said some syariah courts were handing down orders that violated human rights and punished the innocent. It said no religion, including Islam, allowed innocent people to be punished.
"Syariah courts are not sanctioned by law and there is no legality of fatwas in this country," Justice Prasad was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.
The Supreme Court ruling came in response to a public interest petition filed by lawyer Vishwa Lochan Madan. He wanted syariah courts to be declared unconstitutional, arguing that such courts operated as a parallel justice system and that they controlled and curtailed the fundamental rights of Muslims in India.
Mr Madan filed his petition in 2005 and had cited a case in which a woman was told to leave her husband and children and live with her father-in-law who had raped her, AFP reported.
India's Muslims follow personal laws mandated by their religion to govern issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance and they also approach syariah courts to resolve disputes.
But the practice has been politically sensitive and the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for long advocated a uniform civil code acceptable and applicable to all communities.
However, the controversial issue has not been listed as a priority by the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Muslim community leaders said the court ruling had not changed anything and would therefore not make a difference to the community.
"I welcome this ruling. Syariah courts did not have any legal standing even earlier and Muslims never claimed they were legally sanctioned. Therefore this question itself was incorrect," Mr Shahid Siddiqui, a former member of Parliament, told TV channels.
Mr Kamal Faruqui, a member of the Muslim Personal Law Board whose views were taken into account in Mr Madan's case, told The Straits Times that syariah courts did not need any recognition and they were not parallel courts as it had been made out.
He likened syariah courts to the panchayat system in Indian villages where village elders arbitrate and resolve local disputes.
Darul Qaza or Islamic courts, he said, were an integral part of the religion and the Indian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion.
This article was first published on JULY 8, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.